Why Am I Still Being Punished?

Sep 15, 2005 |J. Budziszewski

Sometimes our sins are easily forgiven and forgotten. Other times, the damage is too deep to quickly be undone. It's about the slow repair, says Theophilus.

"Professor Theophilus?"

"Yes? Oh, hello!"

"I'm Brooke. I'm sure you don't remember me —"

"I do remember you. You were with Jordan at the annual university picnic." Jordan had been around a lot of girls at the annual picnic, but that's another story.She sighed dramatically. "I'm so relieved. I knew you knew Jordan."

"Is something wrong with Jordan?"

"Not with him, with us. But because of something — actually, no, because of something I — anyway, I was hoping you might be willing to talk to me, because you know him. He trusts you, and I need to talk with someone old."

She covered her mouth with her hand. "I mean more experienced in life."

I smiled.

She added, "And you're a Christian and everything."

"And everything. What's the problem?"

"Now that I'm here, I'm a little embarrassed to tell you — it's about —"

"Your relationship with Jordan."

"How did you know?"

"I thought that was what you just told me."

"Oh. Yes. Well, I think I've made a big mistake with him. In our relationship. Such as it is."

"Back up. What exactly is your relationship? At the picnic, he introduced you as a special friend, but —"

"I know, he calls everyone a special friend."

I chuckled. She smiled nervously.

"We're girlfriend and boyfriend," she said. "Since the picnic we've been seeing each other. Or we were."

"You've broken off?"

"I'm not sure," she hedged. She had exactly the look that my cat gets when she's trying to work up the nerve to jump through the door and come in.

"It's like this. Jordan — this is so embarrassing. Well. Jordan has a problem. It's, like, a flaw. A spiritual problem. What you'd call a beseeking — bespeaking — besettling sin."

"A besetting sin."

"One of those. But I'd better not say more. Because that's the problem." She took a breath. "See, I happened to tell a few friends about it."

I raised my eyebrows. "You happened to tell them?"

"I mean, I told them."

"You told them it was Jordan?"

"I said 'my boyfriend,' but they all knew who I meant."

"Let me guess. Two weeks later, Jordan called you up and asked, 'Why have you been broadcasting my personal problems to everyone in the world?'"

"Only a week later. How did you know?"

"Wind blows, water flows, gossip gets around."

"I only told a few people."

"A few?"

"Only Amber, Ashley, Kala, Becca, Melissa, Danielle and MacKenzie."

"That's a big few."

"But they said they wouldn't tell!"

"Telling is what people usually do with gossip."

"It didn't seem like gossip. They're my friends. Don't friends tell each other things?"

"Does that make it not gossip when they do?"

"Besides, they're not just any friends. They're my accountability group."

"How did Jordan discover that you'd told them?"

"The guys in his accountability group started ragging on him. Amber told Julie, who told Zack, who — you probably get the picture."

I nodded.

"I thought, isn't that what an accountability group is for? You know, 'Confess your sins one to another.' Isn't that what it says in the Bible?"

"What sins of yours were you confessing?"

She stared at me. "What?"

"You quoted the Bible, 'Confess your sins one to another.' What sins of yours were you confessing?"

"I wasn't confessing my sins."

"Whose were you confessing?"

"I guess I was confessing Jordan's." She looked morose. "Okay. I know I messed up with him. Actually I'd figured that out already, from how he acted."

"Was he upset?"

"Really upset. For weeks and weeks."

"Did you apologize to him?"

"Not right at first, but I did later."

"Has he forgiven you?"

She hesitated. "He says he has."

"Do you believe him?"

"Yes. Actually, yes, I do. He means it."

"That's good. Have you spoken to God about it?"

"Yes. I think He's forgiven me too."

Her face clouded and reddened. I waited for her to speak again.

She finally said, quaveringly, "Professor Theophilus, if I'm forgiven, then why am I still being punished?"

I sipped from my coffee cup to give myself time to think. "Who is punishing you?"

"Jordan. God. Both."

"Start with Jordan."

She sniffled and nodded.

"Is he treating you with resentment?"

"That's what's so awful. I could sort of understand if he did, because it would mean that he hadn't forgiven me." She pulled a tissue from her backpack and held it in readiness. "Actually he's been kind and understanding."

"But?"

"You'd think that if he really forgave me, the relationship would be just like it used to be. But it isn't. I feel it."

"How is it different?"

"There's a distance between us. It wasn't there before. He's not trying to put it there like some people do when they're angry. It's just there."

"Why do you think it's there?"

"Because he can't forget." She blew her nose. "I thought when you forgave, you were supposed to forget."

"No, I'm afraid that forgiving and forgetting aren't the same."

"Why not?"

"Sometimes forgetting isn't wise."

"When I was at my sister's house," Brooke said, "I broke down and cried, and she made me tell her what I was upset about. She said that if Jordan can't forget, then he must not really have forgiven me. But I know he forgave. So why can't he forget?"

"Think of it this way. Suppose one day a friend gives you a lift in his car, but he frightens you by cutting into traffic at high speed. Afterward he apologizes."

"Uh huh." She nodded.

"You forgive your friend, but you know that his bad driving is habitual, and you're afraid he might do something crazy like that again. So the next time you need a lift, what makes more sense — to catch a ride with him, or to catch a ride with someone else?"

"To catch a ride with someone else."

"I agree. Now think. You haven't forgotten the way he drives. Does that mean you haven't forgiven him either?"

"I guess not, but that's different. In that story, if I don't remember I might get hurt. I don't see how Jordan could — oh."

"You do see?"

"Yes. He might be afraid that I'll blab his confidences again. He might be thinking that he can't trust me any more. So there's a distance between us. Do you think that's it?"

"Let's say it's very probable. My point, though, isn't about what may be going through Jordan's mind. It's that forgiven sins have consequences too. That doesn't mean they're not forgiven."

"That doesn't change anything," said Brooke. "You can call it a 'consequence' if you want to, but it still feels like punishment." She stuffed the used tissue into her backpack, pulled out another and buried her nose in it. "You probably think I'm being silly to talk that way."

"No, I think you're being accurate."

She looked up. "You do?"

"Yes. It is a kind of punishment."

"What do you mean?"

"A punishment is something you suffer as a result of sin. Isn't that what you're experiencing?"

"Yes. But I said it felt like punishment. How can it be punishment? Jordan isn't trying to punish me."

"Sin results in two kinds of suffering, Brooke. One kind has to do with guilt — it happens because what we've done is wrong. The other has to do with consequences — it happens because what we've done causes harm, to us or to others. Forgiveness erases the penalty of guilt, but something else is usually necessary to erase the penalty of consequences."

"I think I need an example."

"You burn down someone's house. He forgives you; your guilt is no longer written on his slate. That takes care of one penalty. But does it repair the damage?"

"No."

"So you suffer the further penalty of, say, building him a new home. Or giving him yours."

"I get that. One penalty is guilt, the other is damage. But how does that apply to me and Jordan?"

"Which penalty is confusing you?"

"I understand the penalty of guilt. He forgave me, and God forgave me. It's the other one I don't get, the penalty of damage. Are you talking about the damage to the relationship — the loss of trust?"

"Partly. There are two other kinds of damage too."

"I can think of one kind. Damage to Jordan. I hurt his feelings."

"You may have hurt more than his feelings. It's a lonely thing when someone we trust violates that trust. We usually find it a little harder to trust anyone, which is lonelier still. Do you think Jordan might be suffering those kinds of wounds?"

Her face betrayed shock. "Nothing like that even crossed my mind."

"And then there is the damage you did to yourself."

"I'm lonelier, that's for sure."

"I'm sure you are, but that's not what I mean. Vices and virtues are like stalagmites and stalactites. They're built up in our souls little by little, by the acts and choices we make every day. Every act of courage makes us inwardly more courageous; every act of cowardice makes us inwardly more cowardly. Every act of self-control makes us inwardly more self-controlled; every act of self-indulgence makes us inwardly more self-indulgent. Do you understand?"

"I thought virtue came from God's grace."

"Without God's grace, we're helpless. That's true. But the principle applies here too, because we have to accept that grace. Every time we cooperate with it, we become inwardly more cooperative toward it, and every time we resist it, we become inwardly more resistant to it. Now do you see where I'm going?"

"I'm not sure."

"We were talking about how violating Jordan's trust damaged your soul. Reason the way I did about courage, self-control and cooperation with the grace of God. But about trustworthiness."

"I think I get it. Every time we honor someone's trust, we become inwardly more worthy of trust. And every time we violate someone's trust —" Brooke's face changed color.

"Go on."

"We become a little less worthy of trust."

"That's how you damaged yourself."

"How can I repair all that damage?"

"You tell me."

"By showing that I can be trusted."

"Not just showing."

"By becoming more worthy of trust."

"How?"

"By — I guess — by honoring the trust people place in me. Little by little. Choice by choice. But Professor Theophilus —"

"Yes?"

"Won't that take a long time?"

"It might."

"And even if the damage is repaired in me, it seems to me there's no guarantee that it will be healed in him or in the relationship."

"There's no guarantee. That sort of thing lies in the providence of God."

"But I've prayed to God about it. Professor Theophilus, I know He forgave me. He erased the penalty of guilt. Do you think he might erase the penalty of consequences too?"

"Do you mean in the long run or in the short?"

"Both!"

"In the long run, He promises to wipe every tear from the eyes of those who follow Him. But that's in heaven. In this life He promises only help."

"Why just help? Why won't He just fix things?"

"Presto, change-o! Like that?"

"Yes! Just like that! Why not? Why shouldn't He?"

"Would it be good for us if He did?"

"How could it not be good?

"For one thing, sometimes we need to go on suffering one consequence of sin a little longer in order to recover from a different consequence of sin. One pain may be medicine for the other."

"That sounds crazy."

"Is it? Right now you're suffering from the wound your act gave to your relationship with Jordan. But suppose you weren't. Suppose that wound had healed instantly. In that case, would you even be thinking about the wound that it did to your soul — about the bleeding hole it made in your worthiness to be trusted?"

That brought her up short. In a different voice, she said "Maybe not."

For a few moments she was silent. Then she asked, "Is there anything I can do to make things better? I mean besides trying to be more trustworthy. And besides asking for grace. And, I guess, besides doing a better job of repenting than I did before."

"I think there is."

"What?"

"We're Christians, Brooke. Because of Christ's suffering for our sins, suffering ought to mean something different to us than it does to other people. It can unite us more closely to Him. So when you pray, offer your suffering to the Father. Offer it in communion with all Christians, to be united with the suffering of His Son."

"How could I unite my suffering with His?"

"He does it. Just let Him."

"Then does it go away?"

"No."

"I don't understand."

"You don't have to. He does."

She hesitated. "I could try."

"That's enough."

She gave me an odd look. "This isn't what I wanted from Him."

"No —"

"But I think it might be better."

I smiled.

Copyright 2005 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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